'There's Death Threats': Indigenous Fishers Nervous as Nova Scotia's Commercial Lobster Season Opens

Dumping Day—the start of the lobster season—is usually a celebratory time in southwest Nova Scotia. Not this year.
December 2, 2020, 3:04pm
Boats loaded with traps head from the harbour in West Dover, N.S. on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020 as the lucrative lobster fishing season on Nova Scotia's South Shore opens.
Photo via The Canadian Press

SAULNIERVILLE, Nova Scotia — Ahead of the start of the commercial lobster fishery in southwest Nova Scotia, two community wharves are rife with frustration and uncertainty. 

Dumping Day, as it’s called, marks the day lobster fishers dump their traps at sea. It’s usually celebratory—lobster is their lifeblood and economic engine of the area—but this year the possibility of more terror is on everyone’s minds as dozens of commercial fishing boats prepare to head into St. Mary’s Bay at the same time as Indigenous fishers. 

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Violence erupted here this past fall, making international headlines, after a Mi’kmaq community launched its own treaty fishery outside the commercial fishing season. That community, Sipekne’katik First Nation, is legally allowed to fish any time under treaty rights that give them the right to earn a moderate livelihood, but locals were incensed. Mobs of angry commercial fishermen confronted Indigenous fishers, burning vehicles, blocking roads, and assaulted their chief. 

Jazlyn Paul, 24, feels more nervous this year than the past four years she’s fished with her father on Dumping Day in the small Acadian community of Saulnierville. “It’s gonna be worse this year,” said Paul, a member of Sipekne’katik. “Now, there’s death threats.” 

On the main wharf in Saulnierville, Paul and her band members scrambled to unload 300 new lobster traps to replace the ones that had been seized or sabotaged at sea, delivering them to the band’s fleet of 11 Cape Islander-style boats at the dock. The band is licensed for 550 traps.

Ten minutes down the road at the wharf in Meteghan, non-Indigenous commercial fishermen tried to keep their heads down and hostility at bay. Their docks were jam-packed with roughly 60 state-of-the-art fibreglass fishing trawlers, thousands of lobster traps stacked nearly a storey high on the wharf, and bouquets of neon buoys, signalling their readiness to start fishing. Between 75 and 85 boats, with some able to hold up to 400 traps, will head into St. Mary’s Bay when the fishing area opens later this week. Dumping Day for this area, which stretches from Digby to Yarmouth, usually starts the last Monday in November but was postponed to at least Thursday due to high winds.

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The difference between the wharves showed a stark economic contrast in size and sheer number of fishing vessels between two groups that do not see eye to eye over when and who should have access to the $1.2 billion lobster industry. 

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Mi’kmaq fisher Jazlyn Paul seen on the wharf earlier this week. Photo by Lindsay Jones.

The largely white Acadian commercial fishermen are upset that the Mi’kmaq have been fishing outside the commercial season and are concerned about the sustainability of the lobster fishery. They see themselves, their culture and distinct language, as having survived and prospered despite their own expulsion in Nova Scotia two and a half centuries ago. 

The Mi’kmaq have been historically mistreated and marginalized by settlers, and endured a cultural genocide for which reparations have not been made despite promises from Justin Trudeau’s government. They want to earn a moderate livelihood on the water, a legally protected treaty right affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada more than two decades ago with the Donald Marshall Junior decision.

The wharves, in many ways, are the town squares of these fishing communities. It’s where locals of all ages pull up to chitchat about the weather, have a coffee, and survey the activity on the wharf as fishermen check in on their boats, driving up in half-tonne pickup trucks. 

Some Mi’kmaq have fished alongside commercial fishermen on these wharves for years but this year, after violence erupted in the past few months, they’re now divided largely by race—the white Acadian fishermen at Meteghan, and the Mi’kmaq at Saulnierville, with each flying their own flags. A court injunction, sought by the Mi’kmaq, has further separated the two groups, in an effort to prevent any more aggression and harassment towards band members on the Saulnierville wharf and on the water as they continue to fish until Dec. 17, the end of their moderate livelihood plan. The commercial inshore lobster fishery, expected to launch later this week, runs until the end of May. 

Chief Mike Sack says he’ll be at the wharf on Dumping Day to provide support during a possibly dangerous time when both his band members and the non-Indigenous commercial fishermen will be on the water together. 

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“We encourage them if they don’t feel safe to make sure they do come back in and we’re going to be here and looking on,” said Chief Sack. 

Meanwhile, the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, which represents over 1,200 independent inshore fishermen in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, recently hired a consultant, Dan Nadeau, to help manage the conflict on the ground.

“Tensions can run high,” said Nadeau, a former RCMP member whose office is on the Meteghan wharf. “Part of my responsibility is to keep the line of communication open with the fishers and keep them calm and composed and not react to certain sound bites that come off the news.

“The French Acadian people are not looking for conflict,” he added. “They just want to be heard. So far, it appears that nobody’s really listening.”

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Chief Mike Sack speaking at a press conference earlier this week.

Nadeau lamented that commercial fishermen have been left out of talks with the federal government about defining the terms of a moderate livelihood fishery for Sipekne’katik First Nation. 

After years of procrastination and months of back and forth, those talks appear to be making progress, a historic sign in the bitter dispute over treaty rights. 

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently proposed an agreement in support of Sipekne’katik’s moderate livelihood fishery, and band lawyers are going over language in it right now. Chief Sack said he hopes to have the proposal finalized this week. “We’re gonna push through this and we’re going to exercise our right and we’re not going anywhere until we have the right agreement in place,” he said. 

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Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard Bernadette Jordan has faced intense criticism from both sides, including calls to resign from Chief Sack. 

Many of the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s traps have been either cut at sea or seized by Fisheries and Oceans Canada—something that’s been frustrating to Chief Sack who says he’s not in violation of any rules and is currently auditing his traps and awaiting a report from the federal government.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the seizure took place as part of a routine gear inspection by its officers to ensure compliance with the Fisheries Act and associated regulations. In an email response, the department said it is still investigating whether there were any violations.

To help replenish their lost traps, the band spent $30,000 on new gear to get their fishers back on the water. They spent Sunday tagging and numbering the new lobsters traps to dump in St. Mary’s Bay. 

Meanwhile, RCMP are planning a large police presence to discourage any rising tensions on Dumping Day, said spokesman Sgt. Andrew Joyce. 

“We continue to take steps to ensure that all those who were unlawfully interfered with or their safety was threatened, we are taking action to hold those accountable in the past and will continue to maintain that effort for the future,” said Sgt. Joyce. 

The RCMP was roundly criticized for their initial inaction to the violence earlier this fall. 

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This week police announced more charges in relation to the skirmish against people on both sides.  

Dale Wagner, 42, of Digby faces charges for violating the court injunction related to a report of a boat purposefully steaming towards another vessel, narrowly avoiding collision in St. Mary’s Bay. 

Shaquest Miller, 26, and Brandon Maloney, 34, a Sipekne’katik band councillor, were both charged with unsafe operation of a vessel in St. Mary’s Bay from incidents in September and October.  

In a video message on Facebook, Maloney said he considers the charge a medal and plans to frame it like a diploma. 

“That’s the day we tried to get the traps back off a few commercial vessels,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a single thing. The next time we gotta go down there and do it again, I’ll do it again.” 

The RCMP still have not laid charges in relation to the suspicious fire of a lobster pound that was burned to the ground in Middle West Pubnico in October, nor in relation to the angry mob of commercial fishermen that surrounded that building, throwing rocks, vandalizing vehicles and dumping lobster while two Mi’kmaq fishers were barricaded inside three days earlier. Sgt. Joyce said investigations into the two incidents are ongoing.

Jason Marr was one of two men who feared for his life while waiting inside the lobster pound for more than an hour and a half for help from police. On the Saulnierville wharf, as he and his daughter Jazlyn Paul unloaded and tagged the new traps on a sunny Sunday afternoon ahead of Dumping Day, he said he feels like his band members are finally making headway. 

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“It’s been frustrating, a long road,” said Marr. “It’s been relentless.”

Now that they have new traps, father and daughter are finally able to get back out on the water, on their family boat, The Time Bandit. 

“I just love fishing,” said Paul, adding that her job is to pull the lobster trap out of the ocean, empty it, and run it to the back of the boat. 

“I always feel safe with my dad on the boat. He taught me everything I know. He’s been fishing for over 20 years. It’s a legacy, I guess. I just want to keep up with it.”

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